Give the Washington coaching staff credit, they identified the biggest weaknesses within the Saints’ defense and mercilessly attacked it.
One of the biggest issues New Orleans has faced this season is matching up with tight ends. Those issues have been the result of linebackers not matching up well or the tight ends going unaccounted for in zone coverage.
With Dannell Ellerbe, Ramon Humber and David Hawthorne out of action, Washington realized those issues were going to be even more pronounced. So instead of taking deep shots down the field or trying to beat the Saints outside the numbers, Washington quarterback Kirk Cousins instead focused on hitting his targets over the middle or in the flats. It worked to the tune of a 47-14 victory.
Cousins attempted only three passes that traveled 10 or more yards through the air, one of which was a 42-yard strike to DeSean Jackson down the left sideline during the first series of the game. Instead, Cousins’ focal point was right over the middle, usually no more than 10 yards from line of scrimmage.
Within that area, he was often able to locate receivers, tight ends and running backs running underneath New Orleans’ zone coverage. And when he found those guys, linebackers Michael Mauti and Jo-Lonn Dunbar were often slow to react, which helped turn short passes into big gains.
It almost seems impossible, but only about 60 of Cousins’ 324 passing yards came through the air, most of which came on the big gain to Jackson. The rest were gained after the catch. Some of this was the result of good blocking. And some of it was the result of the Saints being slow to the ball or missing tackles.
Surprisingly, though, the tackling wasn’t as bad as initially expected. The team missed only about 10 tackles, which isn’t good, but that figure has been higher in other games. New Orleans missed more in losses earlier this season against the Philadelphia Eagles and Tampa Bay Buccaneers, and exceeded that mark five times last season.
The difference was that the missed tackles were more glaring and led to more damage against Washington. The issues first surfaced on the second drive of the game when safety Jairus Byrd missed a tackle on a screen to Matt Jones that went for 29 yards. Things then came to a head on a 78-yard touchdown by Jones.
On that play, Jones came out of the backfield unmarked, and Jones was the beneficiary of solid blocking. No one ever had a real shot at him, though he was helped when Brandon Browner took out a blocker instead of going in pursuit. At the end of the play, Kenny Vaccaro worked his way off a block and went in pursuit of Jones, but the ink was already being put on the scorecard by then.
From watching the film — and this isn’t the most scientific way to explain things — the bigger issue is that it seemed like New Orleans never had enough guys around the ball. Cousins was able to beat the Saints several times on check downs over the middle when New Orleans’ linebackers dropped back. Those receivers would then either make the player miss or beat them to edge to for a big gain. Overall, seven plays were marked down as “no coverage.”
It’s become increasingly clear that New Orleans needs to get its linebackers back on the field. Ellerbe would make a world of difference, and it’s hard not to think he would have cleaned up some of the things that got by the linebackers Sunday.
The other takeaway from watching this game is that if new defensive coordinator Dennis Allen can simply make sure so many guys aren’t getting open underneath, it would lead to improvement for the defense.
QUARTERBACK: 2 out of 4
This wasn’t the best game of the season for Brees. He was picked off twice and probably should have thrown another one. After seeing the deep pass come back a bit recent weeks, Brees only attempted two passes that traveled 20 or more yards through the air. Those throws didn’t look as crisp later in the game.
RUNNING BACKS: 2 out of 4
This game featured some of the best runs we’ve seen from Mark Ingram all season. Unfortunately, he was banged up in the first half and was limited to five runs.
C.J. Spiller received some more carries as a result, but didn’t light the world on fire.
Tim Hightower didn’t look bad when given the chance to get some carries.
RECEIVERS: 2 out of 4
Brandin Cooks’ drop on a third down was a killer. Otherwise, though, he played a great game, and his chemistry with Brees continues to grow. There’s going to be a shot play to him every game when the defense chooses to single him out of 12 personnel.
Marques Colston probably should have protected Brees from throwing an interception.
Michael Hoomanawanui needs to perform better than this if he’s going to be relied upon to block.
OFFENSIVE LINE: 2 out of 4
Credit to Terron Armstead for gutting it out when he was less than 100 percent. Still, his knee made him appear a little slower than usual. and he wasn’t the force he usually is.
One interesting twist was that the Saints rotated Tim Lelito and Senio Kelemete at left guard.
DEFENSIVE LINE: 1.5 out of 4
Cam Jordan once again had a good game. He’s by far the best player on this unit and finished the game with three hurries and a quarterback hit. His pressure created a pair sacks: one by Obum Gwacham and another shared by Gwacham and Tyeler Davison.
John Jenkins had a solid game in run defense, continuing a nice run of late, but Kevin Williams fought through some issues.
LINEBACKERS: 1.5 out of 4
The injuries don’t help, and there are players playing in roles that are bigger than what they should have. But for the second week, this group made questionable decisions and left the defense vulnerable. They can’t be let off the hook.
Credit Jo-Lonn Dunbar with a pair of run stuffs, but there wasn’t much else going on here.
DEFENSIVE BACKS: 2 out of 4
Delvin Breaux did not give up a reception, and both he and Kyle Wilson had a nice pass breakup. But this group missed too many tackles, even if there weren’t many receptions being made against the members of the secondary.
Of note: Jairus Byrd and Vaccaro took part in a nice pressure. The first time, Vaccaro took out the protector and let Byrd record a sack. The second time, Byrd forced an incompletion.